New York Amends State Human Rights Law to Prohibit Employment Discrimination Based on Hairstyle

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) issued a guidance document in February 2019 addressing workplace dress codes and grooming standards. Policies that prohibit hairstyles commonly associated with particular racial groups may violate the provisions of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) that address race discrimination. The New York State Legislature took this issue on directly in July 2019, when it passed a law amending the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) to include “hair texture and protective hairstyles” in its definition of “race.” New York is the second state, after California, to include this in its antidiscrimination statute. A bill pending in New Jersey may make that state the third.

In its February 2019 guidance document, the CHR offers background information on hairstyle discrimination and its close relationship to race discrimination in employment. It is a significant problem among Black people, defined in the document as individuals with “African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin-x/a/o or” other “African or Black ancestry.” It is also a major issue among people “who identify as Latin-x/a/o, Indo-Caribbean, or Native American.”

The CHR notes that, for many people, certain hairstyles are “part of a racial or ethnic identity” or “cultural practice.” Many of these hairstyles are prohibited under employer policies that treat them as “not suited for formal settings.” Whether intentional or not, these policies specifically target hairstyles commonly associated with specific racial or ethnic groups. The CHR document also addresses how some people’s “natural hair,” meaning hair that is “untreated by chemicals or heat,” can violate these standards. Adherence to these employment policies can be expensive, and can cause damage to hair over time from the use of chemicals to straighten hair.

The NYCHRL does not expressly identify hairstyle discrimination as a form of race discrimination in employment or elsewhere. The CHR’s guidance was based on the law’s directive that it is to “be construed liberally” in order to accomplish its “uniquely broad and remedial purposes.” N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-130(a). California became the first state to enact a law specifically prohibiting hairstyle discrimination when its governor signed the CROWN (“Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair”) Act into law on July 3, 2019. A similar bill was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly on June 13, 2019.

The Governor of New York signed A.7797A/S.6209A into law on July 12, 2019. The law amends the NYSHRL by adding two new definitions to § 292 of the New York Executive Law. A new definition of “race” includes elements like “color” and “ethnic background.” It also includes “hair texture,” “protective hairstyles,” and other “traits historically associated with race.” The term “hair texture” refers to various natural hairstyles that are not allowed under some employers’ policies, requiring individuals to submit to expensive and potentially harmful hair treatments. The term “protective hairstyles” refers to hairstyles used to protect hair health, such as “braids, locks, and twists.”

The knowledgeable and skilled employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent New York City workers in claims for race discrimination and other unlawful workplace practices. Please contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

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